This article was first published in the January 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
In late summer 1662, King Charles II stood on the roof of his banqueting house looking over his sprawling palace below. Beside him stood his famously voluptuous mistress, the raven-haired Barbara Castlemaine. King and concubine watched a dazzling procession arrive at the palace. It carried Charles’s new queen, Catherine of Braganza. She was moving from Hampton Court, where she and the king had recently honeymooned, to take up residence at Whitehall Palace.
This scene – the king and his mistress watching the queen arrive, in effect, alone – is the quintessence of Charles II’s hedonistic reign. He was besotted by sensuality. During his 25 years on the throne, he spent more time on the pursuit and enjoyment of women than in council meetings. He flaunted his mistresses in front of the nation and Queen Catherine.
His court shared his obsession with sex. Leading lights such as the Duke of Buckingham and Earl of Danby were amoral, carefree and licentious. Venereal disease was so common among them that a specialist ‘pox doctor’ was on call in the court. None among his intimates could have been surprised in 1674 to hear that Charles was infected and that his French mistress of the time, Louise de Kéroualle, had berated him before the French ambassador for laying her low with the infection.
Charles has often been cast as a dextrous politician. But interests were neglected and decisions postponed in order to meet the demands of his social life. He once broke off talks on war and peace with a French delegation so as not to keep Barbara waiting for dinner. To reduce the tedium of government business (which he hated) he took to conducting state affairs from Barbara’s apartments in Whitehall Palace. The courtier John Evelyn commented that Charles would have made a good ruler, “if he had been less addicted to women”.
Addicted to love
Charles brought the addiction home from exile in 1660 after parliament issued the invitation for him to ascend a throne empty since his father’s execution 11 years earlier. In the intervening period Charles had remained in exile, living on the charity of the royal houses of Europe. He filled his days partying, riding, sailing and seducing women.
At his Restoration, a large retinue of exiled royalists came home, including Barbara, the daughter of an impoverished peer and wife of the courtier and politician, Roger Palmer. She may well have already become Charles’s lover. Two years later, Charles married Catherine of Braganza, daughter of the king of Portugal. Disastrously, the marriage did not produce a royal heir, while Barbara gave Charles several children. A boy, Charles, was born in Hampton Court in June 1662 while the newly wed king and Catherine were honeymooning there. The affront to the queen was the first of many insults Catherine would endure.
At Barbara’s behest, Charles insisted Catherine appoint her as a lady-of-the-bedchamber. The queen resisted, supported by the lord chancellor, Clarendon. Usually placid, Charles showed steely determination where sex was involved. He warned Clarendon, “who-soever I find use any endeavour to hinder this resolution of mine… I will be his enemy to the last moment of my life”.
Barbara’s new position meant she was ensconced in Whitehall, on tap for the king’s delight. Her huge palace apartments were ostentatious, while her spending almost certainly outstripped that of anyone else in the kingdom. Charles deluged her with gifts and allowed her to siphon off funds that would otherwise have gone to the exchequer. Custom duties brought her £10,000 per annum, beer tax another £10,000, post office revenue £5,000, and so on. One evening she lost £25,000 playing cards. Charles picked up the debt.
Barbara wanted Charles to make her position as a courtesan something grander, what the French called a maîtresse-en-titre, or official mistress. To satisfy her hunger for status, Charles piled aristocratic honours upon her, labelling her countess and then duchess. Barbara meddled in politics almost from the outset, gaining her first political scalp in 1662 when she helped arrange the sacking of the venerable secretary of state Sir Edward Nicholas. Later, she played the major part in the downfall of the even more venerable lord chancellor, Clarendon, who had made plain his view of her by refusing to utter her name and banning his wife from speaking to her.
The queen, with the fortitude of a religious upbringing and the breeding of a royal princess, rarely gave vent to her feelings. As Charles paraded his mistresses, Catherine cried in private. Her agony was increased by the arrival from France of Charles’s illegitimate first-born son, James Scott, upon whom he doted. He made the boy Duke of Monmouth, a title worthy of a legitimate heir, which prompted Catherine to threaten to leave her husband and “never see his face no more”. It was an empty threat; she had nowhere to go.
Though Charles had experienced sex when as young as 15, Monmouth’s mother, the Welsh beauty Lucy Walter, was his first meaningful relationship. John Evelyn described her as being “brown, beautiful, bold”. Lucy and Charles became lovers in 1648 when they were both just 18 and living in exile. Lucy was soon pregnant and Charles accepted the child as his. His friends abused Lucy as “a whore” and, under pressure, Charles eventually abandoned her and took away her son to be raised under his mother’s protection. Lucy reportedly died in poverty in Paris in 1658 not yet aged 30, possibly having had to take up prostitution.
Prostitution was not a profession with which Charles had a problem. He dallied with all sorts of women, of all social classes. Many were ‘actresses’ procured by his servant William Chiffinch, known as the king’s ‘pimpmaster’. Some came straight from brothels.
When the queen fell gravely ill, probably following a miscarriage, the talk in the court was that if Catherine died, Charles would marry Frances Stuart, a teenage beauty and one of the queen’s ladies-of-the-bedchamber. The queen recovered, only to miscarry at least twice more. Courtiers begged Charles to divorce her and marry Frances but he refused.
While these domestic matters transfixed the court, the country suffered humiliation in a naval battle. England was engaged in war with the Dutch, which had begun in the spring of 1665 in a struggle for supremacy of the sea and trade. In early 1667, the British crown ran out of money, and could not afford to refit the fleet and pay ships’ crews. When the crown asked parliament for the necessary £1.5m it replied that first it wanted to know how the £5m it had previously allocated to the exchequer had been spent. No answer was forthcoming. According to Samuel Pepys at the navy board, £2.3m was unaccounted for. It was rumoured that the king had lavished much of this on his mistresses.
With no money forthcoming, Charles made the momentous decision to lay up the bulk of the fleet in the Medway river. When the Dutch discovered this, they decided to finish the war in a decisive knockout blow. In June, the Dutch fleet was spotted massing off the Thames Estuary. Charles didn’t act. Two days later the Dutch sailed into the river Medway and burnt or captured the pride of the British fleet, even towing away the flagship, the Royal Charles. While this was taking place, the king was playing parlour games with Barbara and other favourites. Mobs gathered in London, denouncing the monarchy, with “the Countess of Castlemaine bewailing, above all others, that she should be the first torn to pieces”. As the Dutch sailed from the Medway into the mouth of the Thames, London panicked. Many people fled, thinking the capital was sure to fall. But the Dutch held off, and the capital was saved. Charles could do nothing but seek peace on the best terms possible.
Out of touch with reality
In the aftermath of all this, the king could not, of course, be blamed. The scurrilous and anonymous pamphlets that circulated in London blamed Barbara and even the Earl of Clarendon, who had been against the war from the beginning. A commission was set up to look into the royal finances, but it never sat.
The Medway Raid provided a graphic illustration of Charles II becoming detached from the realities of policy while spending too much time on personal gratification. There was a pattern to Charles’s behaviour; he loved to escape into the feminine world of frivolity and lack of responsibility (for in the 17th century, women of high social standing were expected to exemplify the first and could never have the latter).
Stories abounded of how he hated serious conversation. He enjoyed being with women, making love to them, socialising with them, being pampered by them. Yet he remained curiously aloof, never falling in love, his interest remaining, as pointed out by the contemporary politician and writer, George Savile, carnal enjoyment. Charles’s emotional need for women’s company never developed into the mature bonds that most men and women enjoy. He wanted pleasure, but he also needed female solace and flattery.
Barbara’s demise as effective maîtresse-en-titre came in the wake of the 1670 secret treaty of Dover. This promised Charles huge French pay-offs to back Louis XIV’s war of conquest in the Netherlands while he agreed to turn Catholic. While this monumental deal was being concluded in Dover, Charles’s eye lit on a baby-faced lady-in-waiting in the French delegation. Typically, he deliberately prolonged negotiations on this hugely important pact just to see more of her.
The young woman was Louise de Kéroualle, the daughter of an impecunious Breton aristocrat. With the Sun King’s connivance, Barbara’s enemies, led by the Earl of Arlington, plotted the replacement of Barbara by the young Breton. Arlington tutored her in the ‘dos and don’ts’ of keeping the king happy. It was impressed upon her that the big don’t was “don’t talk business to His Majesty”.
It took a year before Louise was secure enough of his affections to allow him to bed her. A measure of how important the role of maîtresse-en-titre had become was that the whole court was invited to a huge celebratory party, at which their first coupling was expected. The celebration lasted two weeks, climaxing in a mock marriage between Charles and Louise.
The king allotted her a luxurious suite of chambers in Whitehall, showered jewels on her and allowed her to raid the public purses on an even greater scale than Barbara managed. Where Barbara had employed a fearsome temper to get her way, the softly spoken Louise employed tears, embraces and sympathy. Hers was the winning formula with the increasingly jaded king and in 1676 Barbara quit England for Paris, not returning permanently until 1682.
In thrall to his mistress
Widely decried as a French spy, Louise certainly appears to have served French interests well. Under her influence, Charles continually resisted popular pressure to contain French expansionism and stood by while France seized more and more of the Netherlands. The most abject moment came when Charles offered not to call parliament again without Louis XIV’s agreement. Louise’s French biographer Henri Forneron wrote of her: “During 15 years she was holding Great Britain in her delicate little hand, and manipulated its king and statesmen as dexterously as she might have done her fan.”
It is somehow fitting that in 1685, on the evening before the onset of his short and fatal illness, Charles enjoyed a soirée with three of his mistresses – Louise, Barbara and a more recent addition, Hortense Mancini. His contemporaries were not slow to pass verdict upon him. The bishop of Salisbury, who knew him well, said: “The ruin of his reign… was occasioned chiefly by his delivering himself up to a mad range of pleasure.” Sexual pleasure was indeed the problem. He was introduced to it before his 15th birthday, became addicted to it in exile, using it as a defence against a world in which his father had been executed and he himself robbed of his golden years.
When Charles suddenly gained the throne, for which he was unprepared, he continued in the same way, ruling, as the 18th-century poet Alexander Pope put it, “when love was all an easie monarch’s care”. Charles was simply the king who never grew up.
Don Jordan and Michael Walsh have written a number of history books together, including The King’s Revenge: Charles II and the Greatest Manhunt in British History (Little, Brown, 2012).